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Are Rays Better Off Without Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon?

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Did they get out while the going was good? Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon both took the opportunity this year to cash in on their success with the Tampa Bay Rays to sign with teams that could afford to pay them significantly more than the Rays could. Not only that, but both the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs can afford to spend significantly more on players than the Rays. We can’t blame Maddon and Friedman for taking those opportunities when they arose.

It’s also time to realize, though, that while Friedman and Maddon were critical to the Rays’ success, they were far from perfect. While it is true that many Rays players performed below expectations in 2014, so did the front office and on-field management.

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It was Andrew Friedman that decided to give 39-year-old Jose Molina a two year deal for $2.25 million per year. Maybe we could not have expected him to fall off a clip so quickly, but giving such an old player a two-year deal was unlikely to go well. Things were especially bad because of the miscalculation Friedman and Maddon made regarding Ryan Hanigan.

Acquiring Hanigan and even extending him were defensible moves, but the major issue was that nobody recognized that despite his strong numbers, Hanigan did not have the durability to be a starting catcher. Through May 16th, Hanigan was on pace for 433 plate appearances–his career-high is 371 in 2012, and he has logged over 300 in just one other season. Can it really be surprising that his injury issues started soon afterwards? Yes, Hanigan has a history of getting hurt, but by playing him so often, the Rays exponentially increased the probability of him getting injured again.

That Hanigan was playing so often was a complete miscommunication between Joe Maddon, Andrew Friedman, and Hanigan himself. The fact that Jose Molina was left playing regularly after the injuries only made matters worse.

Molina’s contract was far from the only commitment that Friedman gave to an aging player. He also signed 30-year-old Yunel Escobar to a two-year, $13 million extension, and 34-year-old David DeJesus for two years and $10.5 million. Neither contract is far an exorbitant amount of money, but the major issue is that Friedman had no need to work out those deals so soon.

The Rays already had Escobar signed through 2015 and could have extended him following this season if he had played well. While it could have cost the Rays more money at that time, Escobar’s inconsistency throughout his career should have made the Rays more wary of committing to him further. DeJesus, on the other hand, is old enough that the Rays could easily be re-signing him now if his contract up. Instead, he’s under contract for another season and his contract even makes him difficult to trade.

We have to wonder how the Rays’ season would have gone if Andrew Friedman took the $4.25 million he paid DeJesus and the $5 million he paid Escobar and instead used it to sign Nelson Cruz. He ended signing with the Baltimore Orioles for just one year and $8 million, and without the two extensions, the Rays easily could have matched that or even topped it. Cruz may not have hit 40 home runs in Tropicana Field, but he certainly would have made a huge difference in the Rays’ lineup.

Hindsight is 20/20, and perhaps it’s unfair to criticize Friedman’s specific personnel decisions. In this case, the Rays thought they had plenty of outfield depth and Cruz never seemed like a fit. One think we cannot dispute, though, is that signing players over 30 to long-term deals is a bad strategy. Such players have a high probability of declining, and signing them before their contracts are up rarely works out even for the best players. Look at how the extensions given to Ryan Howard and Justin Verlander look these days!

Another disastrous deal handed to an aging player was the one that Friedman gave Grant Balfour, but Joe Maddon managed to compound the problem even more. Maddon has been a great manager for the Rays, but he wasn’t a great manager last season. He generally shown a remarkable loyalty to his players and trusted they would work through their problems eventually. In 2014, that loyalty became a tragic flaw.

It was obvious to many observers by mid-May that Balfour couldn’t get anyone out. Yet Maddon stayed with him long enough to lose a few more games, and then still wouldn’t give the closer job to Jake McGee. Maddon also relied too heavily on Joel Peralta, who faltered in big spots virtually the entire season. We can give Friedman some credit for showing less patience with Heath Bell, Josh Lueke, and even Juan Carlos Oviedo, but Maddon’s decision-making using the relievers he had certainly could have been better.

Rays fans can be sad about Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon leaving, but the pair deserves a lot of the blame for the Rays’ underwhelming performance in 2014. It was the right time for them to go.

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